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  • Matt

The winter webs

Since my last update I have fallen slightly out of love with my website. I still love the design and overall appearance but the image galleries were altered by the website host. They compressed the images (which reduced image quality drastically) and to make matters worse, changed a setting that made the images size larger, making them appear even more blurry. All 2000 of them!

To say it was disappointing is an understatement. It became a frustrating to- and fro-ing between technical support and myself, never managing to speak to the same person as well as a general lack of understanding - or admission - of the fault.

The “solution” if it can be called that, was to go through all my old files to search for images and upload them at full size and resolution back onto the website and then create new “slideshow” galleries for each section. It’s the only way I can get the images to show at a decent quality and is a quicker fix than re-building the whole website from scratch.

Anyway, that’s my bleat about the reason for not uploading a “Latest News” for a while. It’s not ideal, but in some respects it does make me have fewer images up there. As I’ve said before, I’m not the world’s greatest photographer, I’m a bird watcher first and foremost. But my work and where I live offers the opportunity to capture the odd decent shot, and my website is a good way to share the result of those moments.

Visitor numbers to Stewart Island this winter didn’t seem to be as high as last winter, but there has still been the odd kiwi spotting trip and Ulva Island guided walk.

In July, Jules, myself and Nonu our border collie took our first holiday in quite a long time, embarking on a road trip around the South Island for two weeks. For me it had been about year since I’d visited some places, for Jules nearer ten years, and Nonu had only been as far as Invercargill to the vet!

We left on a crisp winter morning, starting with the flight off Stewart Island to the mainland. Nonu has travelled to the mainland by ferry and plane, but this particular flight was a bit bumpy and he didn’t enjoy it very much. His relief at getting off the plane was met with confusion as we got into a car that wasn’t “his” and then drove for longer than the usual 5-10 minutes that he is used to on Stewart Island.

Our first port of call was Mosgiel just south of Dunedin, to stay at a very dog-friendly lodge where Nonu saw rabbits for the first time. He was mightily impressed that they lived down holes and he loved the enclosed dog paddock to run about in and discover new smells. Next morning we left for Timaru, stopping along the way at the Victorian town of Oamaru where I grabbed some photos of Otago Shags and Spotted Shags and a few New Zealand Fur Seals. My bird watching buddy Nonu was not impressed despite getting these birds onto his list.

The drive from Timaru to Kaikoura was broken up with a stop at Pegasus Wetland which is north of Christchurch. I found a long staying drake Northern Shoveler over-wintering on the lake with the more common Australasian Shoveler - not a new bird for me but a good year tick as these birds are pretty uncommon this far south. At Cheviot we stretched our legs at St Ann’s Lagoon, a very British-looking park/pinetum which I often stop at with Wrybill birding trips. This mature park has some nice lakes (we often find Cape Barren Goose here) and provided a good spot for us all to stretch our legs. One of the first birds I noticed on the main lake was a New Zealand Dabchick - the first time I’d seen this species at this lake - and the farthest south I’d seen this species. With the Grebe/Dabchick was New Zealand Scaup, Australasian Shoveler, Grey Teal, and Black Swans. No sign of Cape Barren Goose though. I noted the Grebe/Dabchick on e-Bird and the following day had an email from the Canterbury e-bird co-ordinator to advise that my sighting of said NZ Dabchick was a recordable species as it’s a rarity in that region, so I’ve filled in a rarity form.

Our next three nights were at the coastal town of Kaikoura, one of my favourite places in New Zealand. It’s popular with bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts - great pelagics, whale watching, swimming with- and watching dolphins and fur seals.

In recent years the town has endured significant challenges with a major earthquake in 2016 ripping through roads, railways and homes, leaving part of the area cut off. A mammoth recovery effort took place and just over a year later the main road re-opened and international visitors were once again able to enjoy Kaikoura … until March 2020 when border closures were put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into New Zealand.

However, even with just local visitors, the town while not quite bustling was ticking along when we were there. Our art deco rental home was a short walk from the main town and while places to walk dogs were limited because of the surrounding wildlife, Nonu appreciated the garden at the house.

Black-browed Albatross

Our Kaikoura visit coincided nicely with a full day pelagic with Albatross Encounter, skippered by the awesome Gary Melville. Onboard were a few mates from NZ’s birding scene; Stevie Woods, Fraser Gurney and Dave Howes. I’d last seen Fraser & Dave while I was guiding for a Heritage Expeditions voyage to Antipodean/Bounty/Chatham Island so it was great to catch up. The trip produced seven species of albatross, Northern & Southern Giant Petrels and the bird of the day was Antarctic Fulmar - two birds were seen quite well. This rare visitor to mainland New Zealand, particularly in winter, breeds on the ice at Antarctica and I hadn’t seen one for a while so it was good to reacquaint myself with this stunning seabird. Sightings also included Sperm Whale, Dusky and Hector’s Dolphins. It was good to grab a few beers with the boys after the trip and we planned a shorter trip for the next morning. The weather hadn’t really changed the next day so the same species were seen, the only difference being a small pod of Orca hunting was added to the list.

During our time in Kaikoura the South Island’s northern region was hit by tremendous rain resulting in flooding but we got through to Nelson without too many detours and delays. We’d rented a bijou dog-friendly house on a hill in Nelson where I spent one night and Jules & Nonu three nights. While Jules & Nonu both made lots of friends at the infamous Tahunanui dog beach (and even bumped into some Stewart Islanders!) I was doing a little side trip to Whanganui for Nankeen Night Heron!

Nankeen Night Heron

I hadn’t been to the North Island since early 2020 and this visit was to add Nankeen Night Heron to my NZ list. It was a 30-minute flight from Nelson across Cook Strait to Wellington and then 3-hour drive to Upokongaro near Whanganui. The Nankeen Night Heron is quite rare. This recent coloniser to New Zealand only breeds on the Whanganui River. The birds are well known to roost in tree behind a local cafe. I got to the cafe at about 2pm hungry as I hadn’t stopped for breakfast or lunch. As I tucked into an omelette and salad while sitting on the cafe deck that overlooked the river, I was rewarded with views of the bird flying in and feeding on the river edge below me. The cafe closed at 3pm and it began emptying out. The waiter saw my bins and camera and asked if I was there for the herons - I replied yes and he said I could stay as long as I wanted. So I was there for another hour and saw at least 4 birds, one flying close enough for me to get a couple of decent photos. With bird number 253 on my New Zealand list I was a happy chappy and grateful to the cafe for letting me stay.

I was back the next morning at 9am when the cafe opened for an excellent breakfast and heard the heron calling. I got a camouflaged view of the bird hiding in a tree but decided I’d be happy with yesterday’s result and continued on with my day through Whanganui to a predator-free reserve at Bushy Park.

Most of my birding this year has been at the South Island (and south of) so it was great to get North Island Saddleback, North Island Robin, and Stichbird on my list for the year. Up at a Sparrow’s fart - or in my case a Common Myna - this bird also having North Island territory, it was good to also get this on my year list before the 3-hour drive back Wellington Airport to meet Jules at Nelson.

From Nelson we drove through heavy rain to Charleston on the South Island’s west coast. The wipers got a good workout on the way but it was slow going as much of the area had been flooded and workers toiled away in dreadful conditions to clear the roads. We got to Charleston in the dark so didn’t see much beyond the windows of this stunning huge house. The morning revealed the sea and a long beach just waiting to be explored by Nonu. Once on the beach we were all disturbed to find bloated dead cattle that had washed down river from the terrible floods a few days earlier. Awful for the farmer who collected their bodies in a tractor later the same day.

That evening as the weather cleared I went out to try adding another NZ bird to my list. It was a bit of a hike in fairly dense forest at Bullock Creek Road but after searching for 3 hours for Great Spotted Kiwi I had to call it a night. I heard calls but that was as good as it got. This is a definitely a bogey bird for me. *Sigh* one day …

From Charleston we headed south along the west coast, stopping at Greymouth, Hokitika and Harihari and into Franz Josef for a one night stopover. This small coastal town has built its back on international tourism and was very quiet with little to no visitors. On the Wrybill birding tours we stop at Franz and often eat at Alice May Restaurant so I checked if they were open and we received a warm welcome, as did Nonu who toasted himself by the outdoor fire while wait-staff fussed over him.

Next morning fuelled with coffee we pressed on towards Wanaka with stops at Bruce Bay where Nonu enjoyed the wild west coast beach, and Haast for a spot of lunch. Our incredibly dog-friendly Wanaka accommodation was home for the next 3 nights and was close to a path that went along the lake edge into the town centre. Nonu and myself would go off after breakfast, me with bins and camera and him with his nose sniffing out dog butts and stray tennis balls, swimming in the lake and still trying to find another one of those elusive rabbits things.

That Wanaka Tree

I got some nice shots of Australasian Crested Grebe in the morning light, and from a small jetty nice images of NZ Scaup. After lunch in town we visited the famous Wanaka tree which I’d never seen even though I’ve been to Wanaka a number of times. For the uninitiated, it’s a Willow tree that grows in the lake. Not sure what all the fuss is about but we got the tourist shots! Evenings were spent at a local establishment that allowed dogs outside - it also had the bonus of a roaring outside fire so we could toast our feet and Nonu would have kids giving him belly rubs and telling him how cute he was.

The last day of our holiday was the drive from Wanaka to Invercargill and Nonu endured another flight home. As soon as we got inside our house there was an almost audible sigh from him as he flaked out on “his” couch and slept for hours, barely waking up for dinner.

Our return was timed perfectly to coincide with a pop-up clinic offering COVID vaccinations at Stewart Island. It was great to see so many Stewart Islanders take the opportunity to get vaccinated, and not have to travel to Invercargill to get a jab. The second dose was delayed by a few weeks as the whole country went into a level 4 lockdown due to an outbreak of the Delta variant in Auckland. Once we were at level 3 the team were able to come back to Stewart Island for our second jab; I had no ill effects but Jules felt rough for a while but it’s worth it to be protected and have peace of mind.

It’s hard to know what will happen for our typical busy season. I’ve had two ship-based and one land-based guiding jobs curtailed due to COVID-related border closures. These jobs would have been 3-4 week long contracts so it’s a significant dent in a work season that runs from November to March. I’m hopeful that two other ship expeditions that I have in my diary (one pre-Christmas and one in the New Year) will go ahead and hopefully Stewart Island will be able to ride it out if New Zealanders choose to visit while they can’t go overseas.

Rakiura Calendar 2022

I think New Zealand is going down the route that if we can get the majority of the population vaccinated then there is less reason to keep the borders closed. This year might be more difficult than last but if borders open, next year’s calendar could be very busy. Talking of calendars, the Halfmoon Bay School fundraising calendar will soon be on sale! Three of my photographs have been selected to go into the Rakiura Calendar and as the winner I get the front cover too! There’s some good photographers on the island so it was pretty steep competition - I feel really chuffed to have won. If you’re coming to Stewart Island pre-Christmas make sure you purchase a calendar to help our little school.

Another Stewart Island winter has rolled by and the clocks springing forward signal a change in season. This seems to have caused havoc with the kiwis that live behind our house - it’s their breeding season and they have taken to calling most of the night and often during the day. Tūi and Kaka have an ongoing battle for sugar water on our deck and spring is most definitely in the air.



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